“They always want more… They’re not grateful… You offer something up and it becomes an expectation. There’s a real sense of—well, an entitlement.”
That was 50-something Penny, speaking to me in a research interview two years ago, about “the younger generation”—her coworkers at a software company.
A quick survey of recent media opinion pieces, and especially the comments section of online newspapers, suggests that Penny’s take on Generation Y is widely shared. When it comes to work, this view generally paints people born after 1978 as lazy, flaky, and non-committal, yet with an overblown sense of “entitlement” about salary, time off, and career progression.
In politics, too, Generation Y appears to be going about things all wrong, with low youth voter turnout leading many pundits and ordinary people to declare this generation “apathetic” or “politically disengaged.”
Do these claims have a basis in reality, or are they just another example of the previous generation thinking it had it worse than the new one, “walking uphill, barefoot, both ways to school”?
Over the last two decades, numerous quantitative studies have attempted to measure and compare the attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviors, and personality traits of different generations. Some have found that the younger generation—X or Y, depending on the study date—is more environmentally and socially conscious, less materialistic, more community-minded and less cynical than the Boomers, while others have found the opposite.
Most of these studies are profoundly flawed—failing, for example, to account for the ways in which key concepts like community, environment, and politics have evolved since the longitudinal surveys were first formulated. Crucially, there is no way to openly explore what is important to today’s young people and then travel back in time to survey Baby Boomers on those same measures.
Imagine that we could go back in time and deliver these same surveys to high school seniors in the year 1890. Would they have cared about the environment? And if they did, what would it mean, given that prior to 1960 environmentalism was limited to the appreciation of “nature”? Conversely, what if the surveys originated with the “Greatest Generation” that survived the Depression and World War II? The Baby Boomers might have looked like a very consumeristic, sexually licentious, self-involved, and unpatriotic generation.
In this rush to judgment, older people can overlook how changes to the economy and culture shaped the choices and attitudes of Generation Y— and indeed the whole world around them: stagnating wages, the expansion of non-permanent employment, abominable student debt, rapid technological change, soaring house prices, the difficulties of making a dual-earner relationship work, the inflation of post-secondary degrees, and the overall uncertainty of our economies and labor markets, even in once-reliable sectors.
Too often, young adults are judged for adapting to these negative conditions—which causes many of us to miss the hopes, ideals, and positive qualities that arise in the face of these challenges. We also miss the important fact that many older people have to adapt to the same conditions, and many do so in the same ways as their younger contemporaries.
This is partly why, in my own research, I’ve argued that “generation” is a matter of ideas rather than a category of people. And those ideas grow in response to the state of the economy, the spread of technologies, and the contradictions of politics—as well as the zeitgeist of the day, the spirit of the times.
So what positive ideas does “Generation Y” stand for? It turns out that 20- and 30-somethings are looking for more than just a job. They want work that is meaningful and consistent with their socially and environmentally responsible values. They’re disaffected, to be sure, but that disaffection conceals a drive toward more caring, compassionate relationships and away from materialism. And in these ways, they’re not so very different from Boomers and Generation X.
In my research on generations and work, I interviewed 52 Canadians of various ages. My research focused on the way people think and speak about generations, and the consequences that flow out from these thoughts and utterances.
I’ve also followed the burgeoning research on generations for several years now. When polled, today’s 20-something is likely to say that their top concern is employment. And with levels of unemployment and involuntary part/time or temporary employment reaching heights not seen since the recession of the 1980s, for a sizable proportion of these young people, being concerned about employment means just wanting a steady job. But for many, it’s also about wanting jobs with certain rare qualities.
From my interviews with 20- and 30-somethings, I got the clear sense that there are new ideas about work taking hold in contemporary society, but they’re not a matter of “entitlement.” Moreover, they don’t revolve around a rejection of work, or a desire to get something for nothing.
Instead, I heard a yearning for work that means something, work that allows the worker to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. And if an interviewee wanted this, they had two realistic options. Either they found the job that had these qualities, or they found a job that ate up a minimum of their energy, time, and identities, affording them the freedom they needed to pursue meaning and a social contribution outside paid employment.
Depending on which option they were able to choose—and often, one of the options was closed off due to various circumstances of biography and history—they exhibited very different relationships to work and the task of making a living. Those who found a job that was fulfilling and meaningful and connected to “something bigger” tended to throw themselves into work, spending long hours there, letting it bleed into every other aspect of life, and often making little money.
Maia, a bookstore owner, is a good example of someone who took this option. Looking back at when she first decided to open her store, she recalled that her mother was dead-set against it.
“She knew how much work it took and she just wants me to have an easy life,” said Maia. “She wants all of her children to have really easy lives, but what she just wasn’t understanding was that easy didn’t mean happy for me. And, in fact, easy meant really boring and unfulfilling to me.”
Ginger, a 30-year-old who managed a natural food store, pursued the other alternative: having a job that ate up as little of her life as possible so that she’d have room for her personal passions.
“I just feel really grateful and lucky that… I work at this great place that I really like and I really enjoy,” she said. “And there’s this whole other part of my life that I have the time and the energy to do all these things that I’m really passionate about—that give me that sense of meaning and purpose. My role as store manager doesn’t define me as who I am.”
Ginger said that she is not motivated by money. “It’s interesting though because these misconceptions [are] that I hate money or I wanna be poor—and I’m like no, that’s not the case at all, I just wanna be happy.”
While Maia and Ginger had to find different ways to make paid work complement their values, they shared the same attitude about making a living as most of the other 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed. We can see that this attitude is absolutely not about wanting something for nothing, or feeling entitled to high salaries for little work, or wanting security without commitment.
Rather, it entails a recognition that those old formulas (hard work = high salary; commitment = job security) don’t apply in today’s unstable working world. Indeed, they may never have. But today’s young person has the evidence, visible in the working lives of parents and grandparents—and in the statistics showing the steady decoupling of productivity and prosperity—that throwing oneself into a job for anything other than fulfillment and purpose is risky business.
Survey research has also shown that young people today are less inclined to want to buy stuff for the sake of buying stuff. Surely this shift toward a different relationship with consumer goods (cars, televisions) is one side effect of chronic un- and underemployment—but it is also partly a values thing. Today’s environmental movement, for example, is gradually coming to focus less on recycling and carbon offsets, and more on lessening one’s “impact” from the get-go: buying less, driving less, wasting less. These are values that would have made little sense to earlier generations, and would be difficult to compare through longitudinal surveys.
Disenchanted, not disengaged
When it comes to politics, Millennials show an interesting split.
On one hand, they are widely disenchanted with electoral politics. The knowledge that political leaders and parties tend to be more ideologically similar than different these days, especially when it comes time to put that ideology into practice as a government, is so widespread it’s practically common sense. This is not to say that young people have no interest in or knowledge of politics, but rather that they’ve absorbed what is by now a widely diffused skepticism about the changes that can be brought about by voting.
Yet many of their values and beliefs are blatantly political. In Canada, for example, surveys show that Millennials are pretty adamant about paying taxes. In fact, to them it’s the defining feature of good citizenship. This shouldn’t be too surprising given their support of redistribution-focused movements like Occupy. A 2011 survey even suggested that young Americans are more likely to align themselves with socialism than with capitalism. It could be, then, that they seem politically disengaged because they’re stepping outside the bounds of what we recognize as legitimate political choices.
Young people also self-identify as more “tolerant” of different opinions, sexualities, ethnicities and cultures than previous generations. This was certainly clear when President Obama was elected in 2008, but not just because he was elected. Something else stood out. I remember hearing parents who said that their kids couldn’t understand what the big deal was. It didn’t even occur to them that being black would lessen one’s chances of being elected as president.
Indeed, studies of young children’s reactions to Obama’s election have shown that, while they’re aware of racial discrimination, they don’t generally think race will be a factor in determining election results. The same kind of tolerance is evidenced in the ever-widening acceptance of same-sex marriages and relationships—a civil-rights movement that was almost inconceivable to Generation Y’s grandparents and would not have appeared in surveys designed at the time.
The spirit of the times
So these are the kinds of values that matter to young people today, and they’re positive – signs of increasing tolerance, decreasing materialism, and critical thinking about authority and government. But I want to make the additional point that these are more than the views of the young. There is more at play here than just age.
Indeed, these views and values—and disaffection with work—are not limited to the youngest members of our societies. They do not appear and disappear at the boundaries of a single generation. That’s why they’re better understood as a zeitgeist: the “mood of an era,” the prominent tendencies and dispositions that seem to set “our time” apart from the past.
This is why, in my research, I found disaffected people of all ages. But the thing is, the older interviewees who had the same values and priorities as the younger ones had always felt different from their same-age peers. Unlike the younger interviewees, they didn’t have a sense that other people were coming to the same conclusions, that others faced the same challenges—until now.
By the same token, there were younger workers who’d had to consciously try to bring their expectations and behaviors in line with “what the rest of my generation is doing.” Some of them couldn’t do it, and they judged their peers by the same yardstick—of entitlement and narcissism—as older people tend to do.
Thus, while there is much to be learned by deciphering generation as the “spirit of the times,” the imperfect boundaries between generations, and the diversity within them, should tell us that a generation, like the characteristics we ascribe to it, is a fluid and permeable thing; it’s not so simple as age + year or “everyone younger than me.”
We should be cautious about drawing direct comparisons between people who really, when it boils down, live in markedly different worlds. Moreover, the variation among people we’d like to put in the same “generation” should alert us to the danger of presuming we can know a person’s values and concerns based on when they were born.
We should take every assumed “quality” of Generation Y—and every other generation—good or bad, as barometers of wider, shifting, and often competing social values, instead of the fixed characteristics of some age-bounded group of people. Only then can we turn this into a conversation instead of a competition.